150 Years Ago: The Union cavalry operates as … cavalry!

Writing his final report for operations in Loudoun Valley during the fall of 1862, Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton wrote briefly of the activities undertaken by his Cavalry Division at the close of October:

On the morning of October 26, I crossed the Potomac at Berlin, with the Second Cavalry Brigade and Pennington’s horse battery, and took up a position in front of Purcellville, on the 27th, having occupied Hillborough with two squadrons of the Sixth Cavalry.  After some skirmishing with the rebels, and having driven them out of Purcellville, they were followed up by Colonel Davis, with the Eighth New York Cavalry, as far as Snicker’s Gap, at which point they opened with shell and showed themselves in strong force.

From this time until November 1 the brigade was occupied in scouting the country to Leesburg, Aldie, Middleburg, Philomont, and in gaining information of the enemy’s movements…. (OR, Series I, Volume 19, Part II, Serial 28, page 125)

In short, the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac was out doing what cavalry is supposed to do in the advance of an army – finding the enemy.

Pleasonton’s troopers did find the Confederates, but the cavalry commander was not so good at determining where they were going. In several dispatches throughout the closing days of October, Pleasonton made mention of Longstreet “going to Manassas.”  In reality, Longstreet was marching towards Culpeper (the opposite end of our modern day U.S. 29…).

I’d intended to drive through the country-side this weekend and provide “nearly 150 years to the day” photos of several sites between Brunswick (was Berlin) and Purcellville.  But the recent storm prevented me from getting out to the sites at a time when decent photos were obtainable.  So you’ll have to settle for a photo taken “not nearly 150 years to the day”.

Picture 041

Just after crossing the Potomac, many of Pleasonton’s troopers picketed their horses in this field, which lies between the Berlin Pike (Virginia 287) and the New Jerusalem Lutheran Church just south of Lovettsville.  Nothing momentous happened there.  No great fights or skirmishes.  No inspiring speeches to the troopers, that we know of.  No single event of great significance that we can note.

However, prior to October 27, 1862, the story of Federal cavalry, in the east if not the whole, was one of misuse, mismanagement, and disappointment.  The general consensus was the Confederate mounted arm had bested the Federals at every opportunity (though we know that to be oversimplification).  The Federal cavalrymen were a few weeks removed from the embarrassing Chambersburg Raid.  Yet from time of that stay in Lovettsville until the end of the war, the Federal cavalry would only get better, while their opponent would recede.  Maybe not a “turning point” worthy of a monument or even a marker, but at least worth a pause.

In the first days of November, Pleasonton’s troopers fought sharp actions at Philomont and Unison.  The series of actions seem inconclusive to those looking for clear cut victories.  Arguably General J.E.B. Stuart continued to hold the upper hand, delaying Pleasonton and the men in blue.  But the force that later blocked Lee’s retreat at Appomattox was earning its spurs.


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